Everyone needs a cultural hero

In creating their own works, cultural heroes solidify our own work, whether great or small.

May 17, 2013

Like a proper homecoming, Theaster Gates returned to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago for his latest major solo exhibition, 13th Ballad (more on that next week).

In my eyes, there are two reactions to Theaster Gates. The first, who is this man? The second, I love this man. Gates inspires rapturous attention from his audiences and his artistic career has flourished exponentially in the past decade. But this is not about what Gates has done., It's about who Gates is and continues to be for the public at large.

I am not an artist but I see in Gates a creative force that is unparalleled. Others perhaps feel the same way, too. His latest exhibition then, is a reminder of his place as an important, even critical cultural figure for the city of Chicago and for lovers of the arts in general. Gates is a cultural hero, someone to admire, to study, to find purpose in with each new career move.

Theaster Gates is my cultural hero. So too are Zadie Smith and artist Lorna Simpson. I grew up staunchly independent, finding little purpose in others and instead turning inward. But it was not until I read Smith’s White Teeth that I saw so much of what was missing. 

Although I admire their work, their position as a cultural hero is greater than the sum of their creative productivity. It is more selfish, more indicative of what I need as an emerging creator. Cultural heroes help solidify one’s work and purpose. It is not that they provide vocal assurance. Rather, it is their pursuit of their own endeavors that gives rise to one’s own sense of security. You begin to think, “If they can do that, then I can do this.” Our projects may not be as grand, but it is in the creation of them – the birth of a core idea, the making, and the final product – that we find meaning.

In Smith I found a voice that was so precise and exact as to be frightening. And once that surpassed, I found a young woman of color who wrote (and wrote well and did so successfully). This career path, this pursuit of the written word… in Smith I found assurance: Yes, this is possible. Yes, this can be great. 

But in some ways, there is value in living vicariously through another’s work and choices. For the emerging creator, our cultural heroes show us not a path, but a possibility. This can be yours, they say.

“Sometimes, you just need to know that you’re not completely wrong,” my friend Hafsa Arain said. She is in graduate school studying Religious Leadership. Our paths are not similar, but we are both creating and in the early stages of this creation.

“Especially when you are trying to explain what you are doing,” Arain said. “It’s good to know that your work can matter.” 

Our cultural heroes often inform our choices, opinions, outlook, and interests. This does not signal a lack of personal vision, but rather guidance, assurance and care. What their work and pursuits say is that, “You are right. This is okay.”

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.